It's The Nationals' Pastime

With its tougher style of play and deeper talent, the National League has left the American in its dust
April 04, 1983

American Leaguers aren't about to admit it, of course, but it has become obvious that the National League is vastly superior. For the first time, the senior circuit has won four consecutive World Series, with four different champions: the Pirates in 1979, the Phillies in '80, the Dodgers in '81, the Cardinals in '82. And last July the National League beat the American for the 19th time in the last 22 All-Star Games.

Despite this overwhelming evidence of inferiority, American Leaguers stand firm. "The only thing the National League winning the World Series proves is that the best team in the NL is better than the best team in the AL four games out of seven in October," says Texas Vice-President and General Manager Joe Klein. The once-a-year All-Star Game is even less meaningful, American Leaguers declare. "National League superiority my foot," says Met Manager George Bamberger, who was in the American League for years as a pitcher, coach and manager. "There's really no difference between the leagues."

Get serious, George. Fact is, there are innumerable differences—in ball parks, rules, traditions, personnel—and most of them give the Nationals a distinct advantage. Want proof? Give us nine innings:

1) BUM LUCK

Had Cardinal Reliever Bruce Sutter, and not his Brewer rival, Rollie Fingers, missed the '82 Series, we might be discussing another matter of import, say ball-park hot dogs, American Leaguers assert. But in truth, there was more to St. Louis' win than the missing Fingers.

"Look what happens when players come over to our league," says American League President Lee MacPhail. "Ryan, Gossage and Fingers get clobbered in the All-Star Game. Is there any reason to expect Don Sutton would do so badly in the Series last year after winning 254 games for the Dodgers and Astros?" National League President Chub Feeney is sympathetic—and diplomatic. "To me, 19 of 20 wins in the All-Star Game is the most remarkable record in sports," he says. "You're talking about two relatively even teams." No you're not, Chub. If they were relatively even, the Nationals wouldn't be sporting a .950 record to the American League's .050. The odds against that kind of domination between equals, according to the M.I.T math department, is about one in 23,800. So bad luck doesn't get the Americans off the hook. As Branch Rickey—a National Leaguer, of course—used to say, luck is the residue of design.

2) BLACKS AND HISPANICS

Jackie Robinson's first game in New York in a Brooklyn uniform was an exhibition on April 11, 1947 against the Yankees. In retrospect, it was a most symbolic game in that it matched the trend-setting Bums, who were integrating the National League that year, against the Yanks, who would discourage integration in the American League by remaining all-white until 1955.

Consequently, the American League fell behind not only in black players but in scouting contacts and good will—and still trails. The Nationals also got the jump on the rich Hispanic lode in Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Guys like Buck O'Neil [Kansas City Monarchs], Howie Haak [Pittsburgh] and the late Pete Zorilla spotted such players as Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda," says Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's assistant, Monte Irvin, the Hall of Fame Giant and former Negro League star. "When kids come along today, the old National League scouts still get in ahead of others because they've got the history and contacts." And expertise. The Yankees lost Fernando Valenzuela to the Dodgers, primarily because L.A. saw him first.

Since 1960 the National League has fielded 290 black and Hispanic All-Stars (or an average of 11.2 a year) to 189 for the American (7.3). Admittedly, this trend was most pronounced (11.6-6.1) between 1960 and 1972, but the American League still falls short of parity. The averages since 1973: National 10.4, American 9.1. Six of the last 10 All-Star Game MVPs or co-MVPs have been minority players, all from the National League.

The American League has done better in the Series. Since '73 its entries hold a 53-51 advantage in black and Hispanic-regulars—pitchers who made at least two appearances or hitters who batted 10 or more times in a Series. The team fielding more black and Hispanic regulars won seven of nine Series (1977 is excluded because the Dodgers and Yankees each used four). Of the four blacks and His-panics who won or shared the Series MVP award, two—Reggie Jackson '73 and Reggie Jackson '77—were American Leaguers. (Ever a symbol of something, Jackson is half black and half Hispanic.) Jackson has played for his league's last four World Series winners and hit the game-deciding homer in the Americans' 1971 All-Star win, their most recent victory. How long is he supposed to prop up the American League?

Finally, of the 11 blacks and Hispanics in the Hall of Fame, only one, Satchel Paige, was an American Leaguer, and he clearly was voted in for past achievements in the Negro League. Frank Robinson is the only other member to have American League experience, but he first became a star at Cincinnati.

3) FARM SYSTEM

When polled by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, players, executives and scouts from both leagues voted overwhelmingly for the Dodger farm system as baseball's best. Their logic was understandable: The last four National League Rookies of the Year were Dodgers, and L.A.'s Albuquerque Triple A team in recent seasons has been of almost big league quality.

Players, managers and coaches began selecting an all-rookie team for a bubblegum company in 1959 (the managers took over the voting in '81), and players from American League systems have had a 127-113 edge. The numbers, however, are misleading. National League representatives have been highly distinguished, while the American League contingent has been laden with burnouts and Blue Jays. Sixteen American League players were out of the majors within five years of their selection, as opposed to six National Leaguers. Since 1977 the all-rookie squad has featured eight Toronto players, who had an unusually good chance to start on an expansion team.

4) THE STAR SYNDROME

But if there are a lot of overrated rookies in the American League, they're just following a pattern set by the league's veterans.

Common belief: The National is the league of teams; the American, the league of stars. "I think the American League has more prima donnas," says San Diego Manager Dick Williams, who has managed in both circuits.

Actually, the National is the league of both stars and teams. Each league has 10 or 12 players who are almost certain to make the Hall of Fame and another 10 or 12 who, if they maintain their current pace for several more years, could fall into that category. But the National League has more depth. California Catcher Bob Boone, late of the Phils, says the Nationals are stronger by "six or seven starting pitchers: guys like Carlton, Soto, Rogers, Reuss, Ryan, Valenzuela and Seaver and Richard in past years." Relievers and non-pitchers? In its 11-game All-Star winning streak, the Nationals have outscored the Americans 23-5 over the last three innings.

Another misconception is that free agency and trading have made the leagues virtually interchangeable. In fact, most free agents don't change leagues.

5) THE PETE ROSE SYNDROME

National League superiority involves intensity as well as talent. "Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski," says Montreal's Al Oliver, a two-league All-Star, "two superstars, two future Hall-of-Famers. One is outgoing and confident, the other reserved and confident. That, right there, is the National League and American."

"Having played on both sides, I'd say there's more emotion on the National side," says Giant Manager Frank Robinson, referring to the All-Star Game. "Some American League players didn't think it necessary to play hard." Williams says he could tell the difference the first time he walked into the Nationals' All-Star clubhouse, a few hours before game time: "Three-fourths of the players were already dressed."

Actually, National League intensity predates Rose's influence. "Willie Mays got them started by playing some of his best games at the All-Star," says Irvin. "He'd make a big play in games they should have lost and other guys would pitch in. It became the thing to do. Now they're in a groove, and they don't ever think they'll lose."

"Our players go out there with only one thing in mind," says Feeney. "Winning." The Americans also have only one thing in mind: not losing. Maybe that's why they've fared so poorly. Since 1960 they've come from behind to win twice; the Nationals, 11 times.

6) BALL-PARK FEVER

Six of the 14 American League stadiums, in Boston, Baltimore, New York, Detroit, Minnesota and Seattle, are home-run heavens, at least to one field, and only Oakland, Chicago and Texas have pitchers' parks. Four of the fields, in Kansas City, Toronto, Minnesota and Seattle, have artificial turf.

Only three National League stadiums are universally considered to be home-run parks; those in Atlanta, Chicago and L.A. Most of the others favor the pitchers. And fully six of the 12 parks, in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincy, Houston, St. Louis and Montreal, are carpeted.

Fields dictate strategy. In the American League slow grass infields hold up grounders and nearby porches beckon to sluggers; no wonder the batters swing for downtown, especially because some teams court lefthanded or righthanded sluggers exclusively, to aim for nearby fences at their home parks. In the National League, artificial turf more often converts rather routine grounders into singles and singles into extra-base hits up the alleys. Distant fences discourage home-run cuts; no wonder National batters are less inclined to go for the downs.

Surfaces affect play in other ways, too. National League outfielders must be fast enough to cut off skidding turf hits and strong enough to throw from farther out. "They make some plays we don't," concedes California Centerfielder Fred Lynn. Because it's easier to run on carpets than on dirt basepaths, the senior circuit stresses running on offense, too. Though Oakland's Rickey Henderson set a major league record with 130 stolen bases last season, National League teams, with speedsters like Montreal's Tim Raines, stole an average of 49 more bases than those in the American League.

Six of the National's last seven Series champs—the Cards, the Phils, and the Pirates and Reds twice apiece—play on carpets. This is no coincidence. First, it's easier to switch from turf to grass than vice versa. Turf players adjust from making long throws to short ones, less of a task than the reverse. "If you're set up for grass, you'll have a tougher time on turf because you'll find you're slower," Boone says. Compounding the American League's transition problem is the fact that its teams play so few regular-season games on turf. "When I was with the Orioles, we never did well in K.C.," says the Mets' Bamberger. "It was like kids against men. We'd get singles and they'd go to second on the same hits." No team was ever more consciously molded to a small grass field than the Orioles. They've had the league's best record over the last 20 years, but they've lost three of five Series, including two to Pittsburgh, a turf team. In postseason play, American grass teams are 9-12 on National League turf.

Second, a hit-and-run team will usually beat a home-run-hitting team. The American League has outhomered the National 23-16 in the last four Series and lost each time.

7) HIGH, LOW, FAST, SLOW

Ball-park differences, though, are only part of the story. They don't explain how in 1980 a National League turf team (Philadelphia) beat an American turf team (K.C.) or how the Orioles lost the 1979 Series after coming home to grass with a 3-2 lead.

During the years American League umpires wore outside chest protectors and couldn't bend low, that league had a high strike zone and the National a low one. The umpiring equipment rule was standardized in 1979, new umps not being allowed to use outside protectors, but most baseball men feel old strike-calling habits have persisted.

The effect of this becomes clear in interleague play. Most homers are hit on high pitches, and that's where the American's high zone is costly. The long ball is uniquely significant in All-Star Games, which are reduced to basics—"homers and relief pitching," says Lynn.

Generally, National League pitchers throw fastballs and hard sliders, and American League pitchers favor slower breaking balls. Most observers think the dissimilarity can be traced, again, to parks; big National League fields encourage hummers, while small American League fields dictate slower stuff.

The fastball orientation gives the Nationals a significant advantage in inter-league play. "Fastball pitchers give you little reaction time," says San Diego First Baseman Steve Garvey. "If you don't see them frequently, it can be very difficult." Conversely, a player can more easily adjust to breaking balls if he's used to fast-balls. The talk of the off-season was how the hard-throwing St. Louis pitchers handcuffed the middle of the Brewer batting order. Since 1960, American League All-Stars have struck out 207 times, National Leaguers 163.

8) THE DESIGNATED HITTER

Now celebrating its 10th birthday in the American League, the DH has affected interleague play in many ways, but not in the ways it was expected to. It hasn't crippled the Americans in All-Star Games and the World Series when pitchers have had to hit. Pitchers rarely bat in All-Star Games anyway. In the six DH-era Series where pitchers hit, NL pitchers went 9 for 81 and AL pitchers 9 for 92. On the other hand, the American League hasn't benefited from the four Series in which both leagues used the DH. Twice the American League DH hit better, twice the Nationals' DH hit better, and three times the National League team won.

The DH is a liability in several ways. Because pitchers don't bat in the American League, managers have tended to leave them in games when they are losing. As a result, there has been less thinking, less strategy, less managing. That can lead to big problems in games without a DH. In the 1981 All-Star Game, American League Manager Jim Frey, then of Kansas City, was forced—because he hadn't juggled his personnel properly—to allow Pitcher Dave Stieb to bat in the ninth inning while trailing 5-4. Stieb struck out on three pitches. American League managers have also failed to pick the right staffs: Only one pitcher from Whitey Herzog's excellent K.C. teams of 1975-79 made the squad. Yankee Manager Bob Lemon probably panicked in the 1981 Series when he replaced starter Tommy John in the fourth inning of a 1-1 game; the Dodgers proceeded to blast John's successors and wrapped up the world championship.

By all odds, American League teams should have had superior starters in the Series and All-Star Games during the DH era. According to league partisans Phil Seghi, the Cleveland general manager, and Eddie Lopat, the old White Sox and Yankee junkballer, the DH gives starters the chance to stay in games and experience late-inning pressure. But it also makes them susceptible to injury and overwork. That they are throwing to stronger, pitcherless batting orders and using more arm-threatening breaking balls only exacerbates the situation. Tony Kubek, the Yankee shortstop turned broadcaster (page 94), calls the overwork problem "DH burnout."

It's relievers who need work, and they get it in the DH-less National League. Since 1973, it has averaged 32.3 saves per team, the American League 28.3.

But what can be done about other shortcomings related to the DH? In their passion for big innings, American Leaguers have neglected the sacrifice bunt—even though a grass infield is better suited to it than an artificial one. There are Boston fans who swear the Red Sox lost the 1975 Series to Cincinnati because Rick Burleson twice failed to sacrifice in the eighth and Cesar Geronimo pushed Ken Griffey into scoring position in the ninth inning of the final game.

"National League teams seem to be more aggressive," says former Oriole and Dodger Mark Belanger. "They manufacture runs by putting people in motion, going from first to third, sacrificing and stealing. The majority of American League teams sit back and wait for big innings, possibly because the DH puts an extra bat in the lineup." That's acceptable in the league's bandboxes, but what about during the postseason? "I think one-run ball games make the difference then," says new Oriole Manager Joe Altobelli. Which league is better at scraping up lone runs? You guessed it.

"The National League has been dog-eat-doggish for years," says Cub General Manager Dallas Green. "You haven't had many dynasties over here. You do have dynasties there, and I think the DH has as much to do with it as anything. It destroys intensity." Think of the All-Star and Series games won by late-inning pinch hitters; the DH cuts that noble art in half.

9) SPEED KILLS

The National League was the running league long before artificial turf became so prevalent. Maury Wills played on grass and Lou Brock was the scourge of pitchers and catchers well before the new, carpeted Busch Stadium was built. Let's not forget the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter dashing home from first base to win the 1946 Series. All the modern Cards seem to run. Willie McGee stole second with St. Louis a game down and three runs behind in the Series' second game. Chutzpah? Or percentages? Substitute Catcher Glenn Brummer stole home on his own to win a big game for the Cardinals during the season. In the third game of the Series George Hendrick was asked—in a conversation picked up by a field mike—if Brewer First Baseman Cecil Cooper had touched the bag when Hendrick was called safe on a close play. Cooper may have gotten a foot on first, but Hendrick had already beaten the throw. "It was my blazing speed," he said. If there's a prototype for an American League All-Star win, it was the 1971 game, when Jackson homered off the light tower in Detroit. If there's a standard National League victory, it was in 1968, when Mays led off the game with a single, went to second on an errant pickoff throw, third on a wild pitch and scored the game's lone run on a double-play grounder.

To become competitive, the American League must discard the DH, work harder on fundamentals and learn to run. Instead, its supporters are complaining and rationalizing. "I think you'll find the National League edge in the All-Star Game began when the fans took over the voting," says Minnesota Farm Director George Brophy. But George, fans only elect starters. "Their talent is spread over 12 clubs, while ours is spread over 14 from expansion," says Brewer General Manager Harry Dalton. Not any more, Harry: All 26 major league teams draft from the same player pool.

Get with it, guys. The All-Star Game's only three months away.

PHOTOCharlie Hustle's aggressiveness sets a standard for every player in his league. PHOTOIn interleague play, Reggie has kept the Americans from being white-washed. PHOTOSince 1980, L.A.'s farm system has produced Rookies of the Year (from left) Steve Sax, Steve Howe and Valenzuela. TWO PHOTOSSlick artificial surfaces often turn sure outs into "turf" hits.
PHOTOMario Soto adds to the NL's fast rep. PHOTOEx-National Leaguer McRae is the best DH. PHOTOIn the NL, stealing Raines supreme.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)